For DC United the Future is Now

DC United takes on San Juan Jabloteh FC in Trinidad for their third match of the CONCACAF Champions League with both teams winless so far. But, to the winner goes at least a modicum of regional respect and a slim chance at still advancing, while the loser gains sole possession of last place and will be all but mathematically eliminated.

United finally drags itself to the last match of their wicked streak of 10 matches in 31 days and it’s been a pretty miserable ride for DC United. The Black and Red have gone 2-5-2 over the past month including losing the Open Cup trophy at home, both of their CONCACAF matches badly, as well as seen their home unbeaten streak ended this past weekend by Seattle to boot. Even their two wins were pretty much fluke results in Chicago and against a KC team that manhandled the team in everything except putting the ball in the net.

So, considering that and the fact that a pretty big chunk of starters is not even going on this road trip to South America (OK, Trinidad is Caribbean, but it’s closer to Venezuela than I am to my refrigerator), hoping for a win does seem to strain credulity a bit. Especially when you consider Toluca barely escaped Trinidad with a 1-0 win, while said Toluca cruised easily past United in RFK 3-1 (which also leaves United in last place in the group on goal differential).

However, the future is now for DC United, maybe in a very similar way to DC’s improbable point in Saprissa as well as a respectable effort in Cruz Azul in last year’s CCL, with a mostly reserve lineup. Soehn now gets a chance to do pretty much the same thing he did last year, audition players for next season. Granted most of those guys who pulled off those decent performances were axed, or in the case of Crayton and Janicki, humiliated and banished during this season. But hey, maybe it turns out better this time.

For once establishing Soehn’s lineup should be pretty easy as he only took 16 players, 8 of whom are midfielders, on this quest for regional respect. Considering the other 8 are two goalkeepers, two forwards and four defenders, it’s pretty obvious only a few midfield slots are up for grabs. Unless maybe Soehn will throw everyone for a loop and go back to a 3-5-2, but that does not seem likely.

So if four in the back it is, then it’s just a matter of where they line up. In the defense, I suspect McTavish will play the right, newcomer Lawson Vaughn in the center with Julius James, and Avery John on the left ( Habarugira is suspended for yellows in consecutive matches). Now, Vaughn played a lot of right back for Chivas and McT has played centrally lately, but I think Soehn uses this opportunity to test out whether Vaughn can be a legitimate option in DC’s very thin central defensive corps, and also give McTavish some time on the right in order to give himself another option if Namoff’s seriously poor play continues much longer.

No question Kocic will be in goal to see how he handles the atmosphere outside MLS as he auditions to maybe replace Wicks next year as it would be criminal to throw Hamid out in this type of situation. Then, of course Emilio and Pontius will be the forwards as there were no others on the flight to Trinidad. In a pinch Gomez and especially another newcomer Ty Shipalane can certainly play forward, but I suspect that will only be for emergencies.

So, the real questions swirl around the midfield. It seems a lock Shipalane plays the right because Soehn simply has to find out if this cat can be a true wing player at this level. It would be a waste to play him anywhere else. Rodney Wallace almost certainly plays the left too as he’s only real option there.

But who plays the center will be interesting. Soehn always tries to play a solid veteran somewhere in midfield, and I’m betting it will be Simms with the short straw. I also think Gomez starts on the bench and really only plays if the game is in the balance in the second half. That way Soehn can see more of Szetela or Jacobson to see if either can become that all important holding midfielder to replace Olsen next year, or even work themselves out of the doghouse this year.

It will be interesting to see how United’s youngsters and newbies play against Jabloteh too. The “San Juan Kings” have been four time T&T champions and currently sit in second behind Joe Public in the league, but qualified as the third team from the Caribbean Football Union losing out to eventual CFU champions W-Connection and Puerto Rico Islanders, but defeating Tempete FC in the third place match. Then going on to defeat San Francisco of Panama 3-2 (winning at home3-0) to qualify for group B.

However, for such a lightly considered qualifying team, Jabloteh has shocked the region with its results so far even though they have not won in the group stage yet. They were clearly the underdogs in advancing past San Francisco, especially after dropping the opener 2-0. Then they stunned Toluca, who got an early goal, but had to hang on like grim death as Jabloteh outplayed the Mexicans for much of rest of the match. If not for the heroics of Cristante in goal for Toluca, it could have been the most shocking result of the first round, and that includes Pachuca losing in Panama 4-1.

Jabloteh even had an eerily similar result in Honduras falling to Marathon 3-1 after DC lost by the same score there in round one. But after giving up their soft early goal to the Hondurans, Jabloteh tied it up before halftime. They also carried their 1-1 tie a bit closer to the end as they saved the late penalty kick they gave up (no re-takes for them to deal with apparently), before giving up 2 in the last 5 minutes in a game that was much closer than the score implies.

Jabloteh plays a 4-4-2 and has a former MLS midfielder Travis Mulraine (SJ 2000, before they got good with Donovan and DeRo and collected a few MLS Cups) in central midfield. The team revolves around playmaker Marvin Oliver though, who earned the PK against Marathon as his pass was handled in the box by Norales. Left back Noel Williams converted to PK interestingly. Of course it wouldn’t be a Caribbean team if they didn’t have big, speedy forwards, and Lester Peltier and Jason Marcano were a handful for Toluca and Marthon.

Bottom line is that this game is a crap shoot. If DC plays like they’ve been playing, they’re sunk for certain. But, if some youngsters show up big in addition to the continued excellent play from Wallace and Pontius, DC might well get a glimpse into it’s future as a lot of these young guys could be the new core of the team after United swaps out a few aging or unproductive elements in the off-season.

As for a little history (and you know I love this stuff!), Jabloteh was founded in 1974 as a youth club, but converted to a semi-professional soccer club as soon as a league was formed in 1994, then became one of the founding members of T&T’s professional league when it was created in 1999. They are considered the most successful club in the league, with four championships including the last two running, but that’s debatable as W-Connection has 3 titles, but has won the CFU trophy three times as well to Jabloteh’s lone trophy outside of Trinidad.

Incredibly, DC United will not be the first MLS club they have faced either. After winning the league and the CFU championship in 2003, they met the Chicago Fire in the quarterfinals of the 2004 CONCACAF Champions Cup. Ominously, they beat the Fire handily in Trinidad, 5-2 behind a hat-trick from Cornel Glen (coincidentally, he is currently with SJ in MLS), but the Fire advanced with a 4-0 win at home.

Their team name, Jabloteh comes from a sketchy French name for the national bird of Trinidad, the Oilbird, which is the only nocturnal fruit eating species of bird in the world. So naturally, early French colonists called them the Devil Birds, presumably because they left their fruit out at night and awoke considerably vexed. Anyway, in French, Devil Bird is “Les Diables Oiseaux”. Now, not speaking French, the locals gradually garbled that phrase into Jabloteh, or so it is rumored, anyway.

United will take on Jabloteh in Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain Trinidad, one of the most storied stadiums in the Caribbean, especially for the US. It’s where the US National team just played less than a week ago and beat the Soca Warriors for three crucial points in World Cup qualifying, and where Paul Caligiuri hit the shot heard round the world that qualified the US for the World Cup in 1990 for the first time in 40 years. Hopefully some of that luck rubs off on DC tomorrow.

The stadium is named for Hasely Joachim Crawford the six time Trinidad sprint champion who won the island’s first ever gold medal in the 1976 Olympics by beating the heavy favorite Jamaican Don Quarrie in the 100 meter final. Originally, the National Stadium, it was renamed for Crawford in 2001.

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